Back Channels: More testimony shows a bias against neutrality

Is the Justice Department favoring blacks?

Posted: October 03, 2010

The former head of the Justice Department's Voting Rights Section has put the focus of the New Black Panther Party case back where it belongs:

On whether the department is hostile to the race-neutral enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

Here's a sample of Christopher Coates' testimony on Sept. 24 to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission:

Regarding a Mississippi case targeting an African American, Coates testified, career attorneys and a social scientist refused to participate because of the race of the defendant. One lawyer told Coates he wouldn't take a case against a black defendant until whites and blacks in Mississippi had achieved socio-economic equality. A black paralegal in the Voting Section was harassed for assisting on the case.

After becoming Voting Section chief in 2008, Coates began to ask job applicants if they would enforce the laws equally. He said he was told to stop asking that the next year by the new acting assistant attorney general for civil rights. Coates also testified, "The election of President Obama brought to positions of influence and power within the Civil Rights Division many of the very people who had demonstrated hostility to the concept of equal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act."

Groups such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund lobbied against the filing of the Mississippi case and, Coates believes, for dropping the Panther case.

The Panther case is controversial not because career attorneys disagreed on the facts - as Justice Department officials have said - but, as Coates testified, because of an "incorrect view of civil rights enforcement that is at war with the statutory language in the Voting Rights Act and with racially fair enforcement of federal law."

The Panther case stems from Election Day 2008 in Philadelphia. Two Panthers were caught on video wearing paramilitary uniforms at a city polling place. One brandished a billy club. The other, a Democratic city committeeman, was a credentialed poll watcher. The pair subjected voters and others to racial taunts and threatening gestures.

The Bush Justice Department filed a civil suit against the pair, the Panther party, and its national leader. With the case all but won, the Obama Justice Department in spring 2009 dismissed the case against three of the four defendants. The billy-club carrier received a slap on the wrist.

That decision was widely criticized. In turn, those concerns have been dismissed, either because the Panthers are such a fringe group or because the criticisms are seen as merely political attacks.

I agree that the Panthers are no threat to the nation. And, true, a pair of Klansmen wouldn't have gotten off this lightly, but there the comparison ends. The Panthers don't come close to the reach and power the Klan had in its day. The Panthers mostly spew venom online or on street corners. That's their right. What they can't do is turn bigoted thoughts and words into deeds, to intimidate, threaten, discriminate, assault. And when it comes to voting rights, the law says they can't even attempt to intimidate.

The motivations of the case's critics have been challenged on the left and even by conservative Abigail Thernstrom, vice chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. No doubt some criticism is political. But even if Obama appointees have exacerbated the problem, Coates indicates that a double standard on voting rights precedes the current administration.

Coates testified that there is "long-standing opposition in the Civil Rights Division and in the Voting Section to the equal enforcement of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act."

His testimony corroborates what the commission heard from former Justice Department lawyer J. Christian Adams in July. Both had worked on the Panther case, and both had been subpoenaed to testify. When the Justice Department wouldn't let them appear, Adams resigned so he could testify, and Coates invoked his rights under whistle-blower statutes.

The department quickly attacked Adams as a partisan, noting that he was hired during the Bush administration. Ignoring Coates will be tougher.

Coates has been a voting-rights lawyer since 1976. He was with the Atlanta ACLU for almost 20 years - earning the Thurgood Marshall Decade Award from the Georgia NAACP in 1991. He joined the Justice Department in 1995, and as Voting Section chief led the Panther case. He gave up that post earlier this year and is now an assistant U.S. attorney.

In response to Coates, a spokesperson said the Justice Department "makes enforcement decisions based on the merits, not the race, gender, or ethnicity of any party involved."

That rings hollow after Coates' testimony. What might be better is for the department to allow those who question race-neutral enforcement of the law to come forward and make their case. I doubt most Americans will buy it, but it would be a more honest approach than what Justice Department officials are offering now.


Contact Kevin Ferris at 215-854-5305 or kf@phillynews.com.

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